Militants claiming to belong to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said they seized the hostages to punish Algeria for letting France use its airspace to launch strikes and support operations in Mali. The group said it would free the detainees only after France ceased all military involvement in Mali.
“Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” the Nouakchott News Agency quoted a militant spokesman as saying.
Algeria, which has sought to avoid entanglement in the Mali conflict, dispatched several hundred troops to the complex late Wednesday, sealing off the area but stopping short of a counterattack.
Obama administration officials said they could not confirm the al-Qaeda group’s involvement in the hostage-taking, though they did not dispute the authenticity of a videotape from AQIM asserting responsibility.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta denounced the attack during an official visit to Rome but said he did not know whether it bore “any relationship to the situation in Mali.”
“The United States strongly condemns these kinds of terrorist acts,” Panetta said. “I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.”
‘A serious player’
If AQIM’s role in the attack is confirmed, it would signal the entry into the conflict of one of al-Qaeda’s most notorious commanders in North Africa — Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan’s civil war and a terrorist leader regarded as one of the most violent and best-armed on the continent.
“He’s a serious player and a dangerous person who is very close to al-Qaeda historically,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert.
Belmokhtar’s faction is thought to have commandeered vast quantities of weapons from Libyan military stockpiles after the collapse of Moammar Gaddafi’s government last year.
Early morning assault
Details of the attack on the gas complex remained murky, but Algerian news accounts said heavily armed assailants burst into the facility about 5 a.m. The attackers were in at least three vehicles and took dozens of hostages at a production facility and an administration building.
British energy giant BP, which runs the facility jointly with Norway’s Statoil and Algeria’s Sonatrach, said the hostage-
takers were still occupying the complex as evening fell.